Remember when the self-proclaimed "Goon Squad" comprised the depth chart for the Buffalo Bills at wide receiver? All of that was still ongoing just two seasons ago. In the space of a little more than a calendar year, however, the Bills bid adieu to those late-round and undrafted players (most notably Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones, and David Nelson) in favor of players with significantly more upside.
Today, the top end of the Bills' receiver depth chart is comprised mostly of early-round draft picks (Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and T.J. Graham), with ex-Bucs starter Mike Williams tossed in as a proven on-field commodity with some issues to overcome off it. We can only theorize what the Bills' passing attack might look like in 2014, because two of those five players are brand new to the roster, and the type of talent the team now has on hand is radically different from what we've been accustomed to - even when considering the players at running back and tight end are largely the same.
First thing's first
A passing offense starts, of course, with the play of the quarterback and the level of protection provided by the offensive line. In reviewing both of those areas last week, we determined, first and foremost, that the Bills are positioned to be a run-heavy offense. EJ Manuel exhibited many limitations in his rookie season passing efforts, and while improvement is expected, he's not going to fix everything. Meanwhile, the offensive line has been re-tooled to the point that while few covering the league will recognize it as one of the NFL's most athletic lines, there is decidedly more power up front, with enough athleticism on the edges to get by in the passing game.
Playing to the strengths of that foundation, the bulk of the Bills' passing game was built around shorter routes in 2013 - and that is likely to continue in 2014. But we all know, as well, that the Bills are not, and will not be, a dink-and-dunk passing offense.
Doug Marrone cut his teeth as an offensive coach in the NFL working under Paul Hackett (2002-04 with the New York Jets) and Sean Payton (2006-08 with the New Orleans Saints). Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, of course, is Paul's son, and learned the ways of the up-tempo offense from former Jim Kelly understudy Alex Van Pelt. Those experiences shape the Bills' passing offense: Paul Hackett is a teacher of the West Coast offense, Payton's Saints teams are notorious for folding in four-verticals concepts, and the younger Hackett works these concepts into a system that pushes tempo and packages plays.
It should not surprise you, then, that Bills receivers spent more than half of their route-running time either on go routes (31.1 percent) or hitches (24.5 percent) in 2013. These are two basic routes, and adding in Manuel's well-established deep ball accuracy issues, those figures help to explain a statistic about Manuel: 68.6 percent of his rookie season passes traveled fewer than 10 yards in the air.
At some point down the line, the Bills will want to diversify their route tree, incorporating more combinations that stress the middle of the field and stretch coverages horizontally. For now, however, Buffalo's team-building brass seems cognizant of the fact that the quickest way to make gains in the passing game is to accentuate what they already do well - and they did that by emphasizing run-after-catch ability.
More big plays
Let's circle back to an article we published back on June 4, which centered on the team's need for more big plays offensively. Scott Chandler led the Bills with 10 catches of 20 or more yards in 2013, tying him for 49th in the NFL. There's no question that the Bills need to more regularly create big plays in the passing game, particularly if they want to keep defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run. They need to do that in an offense limited by shorter protection times and a quarterback that's exponentially more erratic the further his passes travel, both downfield and to the sidelines.
Watkins, the much-hyped rookie out of Clemson, has legitimate game-breaking ability and hails from an offense that used him on shorter routes, out of the backfield and on quick screens. Those were drawbacks to some in the scouting community; for the Bills, it might be exactly how they envision using him, at least early. Woods, the second-year pro out of USC, offers more big-play ability out of the slot than did Johnson, and the same is true of Williams. Both Goodwin and Graham offer elite deep speed, with Goodwin more likely to see snaps as the designated deep threat than Graham, who profiles better as a backup.
Chandler and Tony Moeaki don't offer the same type of upside after the catch from the tight end position, so whichever emerges as the starting tight end should be expected to contribute as possession receivers, with the occasional big play up the seam (as Chandler did last year). The running backs factor into the after-catch conversation, as well; seven running backs ranked in the Top 12 in the NFL in yards after catch last season, and there's no reason that players like Fred Jackson and, especially, C.J. Spiller shouldn't contend for that type of involvement in the passing game.
Tomorrow, we'll make an attempt to divvy up five skill player roles to fit within the context of a Bills offense that runs as many plays as possible, emphasizes the running game, and will work to milk big plays out of a short-area passing game that takes its fair share of shots downfield.